Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Not Being A Press Baron

The Times Higher Education Supplement carried a piece on peer-review today, in which Professor Stephen Mumford, a metaphysician from Nottingham, began with a story about being asked to review a piece outside of his area of specialism by a journal which had repeatedly rejected his work. As he points out, this is really rather strange; they don't think his work in his area of specialism is good enough to publish, but they trust him to make judgments about whether to publish someone else's work outside of that area. I've done reviews for journals that have refused to publish my work, and in areas I wasn't entirely comfortable in and of pieces considerably worse, so far as I could see, than pieces I'd sent to them which had received desk-rejections. As Mumford points out though, there are reasons for early career academics to do so, not least of which is, which he doesn't mention, the need to keep journal editors, with their unaccountable power, onside. Many of the things he says seem to me sensible, that the system carries all kinds of risks of abuse of unaccountable power, both by reviewers and by editors, and that one way to combat this would be require journals to publish who had reviewed anything they published, although this of course would at best help expose false positives, when surely, given journal rejection rates, the real problem is likely to be false negatives; papers that a journal rejected but shouldn't have. One thing that might help there is if any published paper carried a record of journals that had rejected it and the names of the reviewers they had used; most papers that get rejected end up somewhere if they have some merit. This could perhaps act both to chill vindicative or lazy reviews and, what I suspect could be more important, to encourage editors to use their power to select reviewers responsibly. After all, these are decisions that have serious effects on peoples' careers, and there is little or no opportunity to attempt to control those who make them, not least because of the veil of secrecy that surrounds them. At least Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere had to sell millions of newspapers to the public at large rather than a couple of thousand journals back to the very people who hope to publish in them.